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Simone de Beauvoir is one of the best-known French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century, and among the best-known female writers of all time. Her study of the oppression of women throughout history, The Second Sex (1949), is a founding text of modern feminism. De Beauvoir was prominent in the circle of left-wing Parisian intellectuals associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. interest in her long-term relationship with Sartre and controversies around The Second Sex have often eclipsed recognition of de Beauvoir’s fiction. Yet she was an acclaimed and popular novelist; The Mandarins (1954) received the prestigious Prix Goncourt. De Beauvoir was a perceptive witness to the twentieth century whose works span from her childhood days before World War I to the world of the 1980s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Young Diarist
Simone de Beauvoir was born in the fourteenth arrondissement, or district, of Paris in 1908, and lived there most of her life. Her mother was a devout Catholic; her father, a lawyer, was agnostic. Despite a comfortable childhood, she rebelled against her parents’ values at an early age, declaring that she would never become a housewife or mother. She also began to write when young, penning her first story at age eight and keeping a diary that would evolve into four published volumes of memoirs, starting with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958).
Alliance with Sartre
In 1925, she began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. Four years later she met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning an intimate personal and intellectual relationship that would continue until his death in 1980. They studied together and passed the agrégation de philosophie in 1929, placing first and second on the exam that provided their teaching credentials. At twenty-one, de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to receive this prestigious degree. From 1931 to 1943, she taught philosophy at secondary schools in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were lovers and developed an unwavering partnership, but they never lived together. They rejected the institution of marriage, and neither wanted children. Furthermore, they did not exclude what they called “contingent” affairs, some of which became important in their lives. In 1933, the pair attempted a menage a trois with one of Sartre’s students, Olga Kosa-kiewicz. This experiment, and the anguish it caused, became the basis for de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay (1943). The novel captures the hothouse atmosphere generated by the trio as the indolent intruder Xavere slowly destroys everything that surrounds her.
In the 1930s, de Beauvoir’s life was essentially that of a provincial professor with intellectual leanings, a wide circle of friends, and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Sartre was drafted to fight in the French army during World War II, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. When he returned in 1941, he and de Beauvoir determined to become more involved in public life during the German occupation of France. Both abandoned their teaching to devote themselves to writing and often to political activism. De Beauvoir provides one of the most vivid accounts of life in France during the war in her memoir The Prime of Life (1960).
Existentialism and Responsibility
The war was also central to her second novel, written during the German occupation. The Blood of Others (1945) alternates between the point of view of Jean Blomart, an active member of the Resistance fighting against the Nazis, and Helene Bertrand, who is shaken out of complacency when she sees the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police, snatch a Jewish child from her mother. After the death of a young friend he inspired to participate in a political demonstration, Jean wrestles with his responsibility for the deaths of others.
The theme of responsibility is a crucial element of the existentialist philosophy developed by Sartre. De Beauvoir agrees with Sartre that human beings are free, without a God to give meaning or purpose to their lives, in a world without preordained values. This freedom leads to anguish, because people can rely only on themselves and are thus responsible for everything that happens to them. De Beauvoir attempted to explain and popularize existentialism in several essays, including The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and Existentialism and the Wisdom of the Ages (1948). The simplicity of her writing style makes these texts more accessible than the abstruse, sometimes impenetrable prose of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
The Second Sex and The Mandarins
When de Beauvoir set out to begin her autobiography, she realized that she first needed to understand the extent to which being born female had influenced her life. She spent hours in the library seeking documentation for each section of the book that was to become the foundation of her international reputation. The Second Sex examines the historical, biological, and sociological origins of the oppression of women. The opening statement of the section on childhood, ”One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” has become familiar throughout the world. The book advises women to pursue meaningful careers and to avoid the status of ”relative beings”— implicit, in de Beauvoir’s view, in marriage and motherhood.
When The Second Sex appeared in 1949, reactions ranged from the horrified gasps of conservative readers to the impassioned gratitude of millions of women who had never before encountered such a frank discussion of their condition. Reactions to the sections discussing the female anatomy and homosexuality were especially hostile. Nevertheless, the book was widely translated and served as a battle cry of feminism in the 1960s and afterward.
De Beauvoir’s best-received novel, The Mandarins, returns to the subject of the Nazi occupation of France. It presents the euphoria of Liberation Day in Paris as German troops were driven out, and the subsequent disillusionment of French intellectuals who found themselves dividing into factions as the glow of Resistance companionship and victory over the Nazis dimmed. De Beauvoir always denied that The Mandarins was a roman a clef, or a thinly-veiled memoir offered as fiction, with Robert Dubreuilh, Henri Perron, and Anne Dubreuilh representing Sartre, Albert Camus, and herself. Nonetheless, echoes of the developing rift between Sartre and Camus, and of the concern of French intellectuals over the Soviet work camps, are clearly audible throughout the novel.
Her Life and Deaths
Most of the writing de Beauvoir produced after The Mandarins was nonfiction, beginning with her remarkable series of memoirs, invaluable documents for following the development of her career. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter examines her early years and growing rebellion against bourgeois tradition. The Prime of Life treats the continuing dialogue between de Beauvoir and Sartre from 1929 to 1944, including the development of the existentialist movement. The Force of Circumstance (1963), focuses on the postwar years and reflects the author’s political awareness; it is written with anguish over the French military involvement in Algeria.
The Force of Circumstance reveals its maturing author’s concerns with aging and death. In the year of its publication, 1963, de Beauvoir’s mother died from cancer. In the moving pages of A Very Easy Death (1964), the author recaptures the warmth of her childhood relationship with her mother, and shares with her readers the anxiety of knowing more about her mother’s condition than she could reveal to her, as well as the pain of helplessly watching a life ebb away. Sartre considered A Very Easy Death de Beauvoir’s best work. De Beauvoir also published an important study of the social conditions of aging, entitled Old Age (1970).
Seventeen years after the passing of de Beauvoir’s mother, Jean-Paul Sartre died. De Beauvoir wrote Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981), a companion piece to A Very Easy Death, to cope with the anguish of watching age and illness take their toll on her companion of fifty years. De Beauvoir notes that Adieux differs from her previous work in that Sartre did not read it before its publication.
Simone de Beauvoir died in a Paris hospital on April 14, 1986. She was buried in the same grave as were Sartre’s ashes. Five thousand people attended the funeral, and flowers sent by women’s organizations around the world attested to the renown of this beloved woman of letters.
Works in Literary Context
As de Beauvoir recounts in her autobiography, she was a precocious writer and avid reader of female authors such as George Eliot and Louisa May Alcott. In her adolescence, a cousin introduced her to French authors such as Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Alain-Fournier. Her mother, scandalized by such literature, pinned together pages of books she did not want her daughters to read. De Beauvoir later acknowledged the influence of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway on her novelistic techniques.
Obviously, her intellectual partner Sartre provided a shaping influence on all her published prose. The pair wrote about the same ideas, and reflected on their shared experiences. For example, it is tempting to compare de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay (1943), and Sartre’s famous play No Exit (1944). Both texts were written in the wake of the couple’s liaison with Olga Kosakiewicz. Both have three main characters, two women and a man, and both convey the fundamental theme that hell is the way other people would have us see ourselves.
Philosophy in Fiction
De Beauvoir’s fiction illustrates in concrete terms the major themes of her philosophical essays, although her fiction is more ambiguous and its tone less authoritative. Her characters are determined neither by heredity nor by childhood experiences. They are free at each moment to choose their destiny. But they must recognize that they are free. Rather than offering a psychological explanation of their acts, de Beauvoir gives them an existential dimension.
Freedom and Bad Faith
For readers familiar with de Beauvoir’s memoirs, several of her characters are more or less transparent versions of the author herself, such as Francoise in She Came to Stay. Another character present in each of the novels is the unloved woman who would abdicate her freedom to possess the man she loves: Helene in The Blood of Others, who is in love with Jean; and Paule in The Mandarins, who loves Henri. These characters represent, in de Beauvoir’s fictional world, those members of the ”second sex” who accept the image imposed on them by society, and suffer as a consequence. They portray the existentialist notion of bad faith because they deny their freedom to stray from conventional female roles.
An Icon of Women’s Liberation
Although the novels of Simone de Beauvoir successfully dramatize the main ideas of her thinking, it is The Second Sex that has had the most profound influence. This pioneering work of scholarship has touched the lives of millions of women, setting the terms for the explosion of feminist theory and activism since the 1960s. Most of the leading advocates for women’s rights in the West have heralded her leadership. Gloria Steinem, for example, remarked in the New York Times that ”More than any other single human being, she’s responsible for the current international women’s movement.”
Works in Critical Context
De Beauvoir’s literary career was very successful. Her first two novels, and most of her subsequent books, were critically and commercially well received. The Blood of Others, published in 1945, is remembered as the first French novel to speak openly about the Resistance movement. Critical examinations of de Beauvoir’s novels, however, often focus more on their autobiographical details rather than on their literary merits, because of de Beauvoir’s status as a historic figure of the twentieth century, and the many illustrious contemporaries who pepper the pages of her novels and memoirs.
Since 1973, when de Beauvoir publicly declared herself to be a feminist, her novels have tended to receive less critical attention than her nonfiction and, to a lesser extent, her memoirs. Most scholarly commentary has been directed at The Second Sex. If the novels have been examined, it is to analyze the ways female characters were represented. An interest in de Beauvoir’s feminism seems to have overshadowed concern for her existentialism.
The Second Sex
Several critics have taken de Beauvoir to task for her apparently negative presentation of women and their values. Jean Leighton perceives an antifeminine bias in The Second Sex that extends to the portrayal of femininity in de Beauvoir’s novels. Biographer Carol Ascher speaks of her subject’s ”grim view of women’s condition.” More incisively, Mary Evans perceives in de Beauvoir an assumption that ”traditionally male activities (the exercise of rationality, independent action, and so on) are in some sense superior, and are instances almost of a higher form of civilization than those concerns—such as childcare and the maintenance of daily life—that have traditionally been the preserve of women.” Conversely, others have argued that de Beauvoir’s depiction of women reveals anger at their circumstances, not their inherent inferiority. Regardless of this criticism, de Beauvoir is considered one of the most important champions of women’s rights, and one of the century’s foremost intellects.
- Ascher, Carol. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.
- Barnes, Hazel E. The Literature of Possibility. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959.
- Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. London: Tavistock, 1985.
- Fullbrook, Kate and Edward. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Basic Books,1994.
- Leighton, Jean. Simone de Beauvoir on Woman. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975.
- Madsen, Axel. Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. New York: Morrow, 1977.
- Marks, Elaine. Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1973.
- Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1994.
- Okley, Judith. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
- Simons, Margaret A. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
- Whitmarsh, Anne. Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment. London & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
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